Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why You Need to Read The Hunger Games

Katniss and Rue
Yes, you...mature adult fan of contemporary African American themed need to read The Hunger Games. Not because it's all your 13 year old talks about. Not because it's the latest multi-generational blockbuster.

You need to read The Hunger Games for its transgressive vision of "race" in America.

A quick refresher for those who have ignored the hype: The Hunger Games tells the story of a courageous, compassionate 16 year old named Katniss, living in a dystopian future North America. As punishment for a failed rebellion, teenagers are randomly selected to compete in the ultimate "Survivor" style reality show: a fight to the death among the 24 young "tributes". When her little sister is selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place, eventually launching a revolution against the cruelty of The Capitol.

Now here's where it gets interesting. For all the horrors of this future world, it seems that racism is not one of them. There are hints that warfare has wiped out much of the world's population, perhaps leading to widespread racial mixing out of necessity. The description of the heroine is racially ambiguous: she has "olive skin", and "straight, black hair", yet Prim, her beloved little sister, is pale and blond.There are likable characters of all apparent ethnicities, and never a suggestion that the callous Capitol residents belong to a specific ethnic group.

 Katniss's initial ally in the Games is 12 year old Rue, who has "thick dark hair and dark satiny brown skin". Katniss is drawn to Rue, whose intelligence, charm, and vulnerability powerfully remind her of her own sister, despite the obvious physical differences, and Katniss feels impelled to protect Rue in the same way she protected Prim by volunteering for the Games.

The bond of sisterhood between Rue and Katniss goes far beyond the "sassy black friend" cliche. Rue plays a pivotal role in the trilogy, and Katniss's devotion to her marks the heroine's moral transition from caring only about her own family to caring about all the vulnerable people in her society.

Cinna encourages Katniss
This notion of a racially-blind universe has not gone over well with all readers. Some were shocked and even offended that Rue was played by a black actress in the film, despite author Suzanne Collins' explicit statement that the character is African American. Others criticized the filmmakers for casting bi-racial Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss's brilliant and empathetic stylist who gives her some desperately needed self-confidence at a crucial moment. Cinna's race is never described in the books, (he is said to have dark hair) but there is no indication that he is white rather than say Indian, Asian, Latino...or African American.

It is unfortunate that pre-conceptions of white as "normal" have prevented some readers from appreciating the book's message. Yet for African American children, The Hunger Games is the rare mainstream children's book that allows them to see themselves as heroes, rather than ghettoized stereotypes, and that presents a world where race is truly irrelevant.

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